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New year’s resolution: don’t sabotage yourself

By Susan David


We humans are funny. Often we create beliefs or engage in behaviors that seem to help us in the short term, only to discover they get in the way of the lives we really want to live, or the people we want to become.

Allow me to share the story of my friend, Erin. Over lunch one day, she told both her mentor and me about a division director job she had truly wanted. The role offered good challenges, the chance to develop her skills, fabulous travel, and unparalleled flexibility. It would have been “a dream come true”.

But then Erin began to recite a litany of reasons why she hadn’t gone after the job. She wasn’t good in interviews, having never received the coaching that so many candidates are privy to these days. She was overweight, which would surely make a poor impression. On top of all this, due to the economic downturn, many people more qualified than she would apply. She thought she’d be great at the job if she could have made it beyond the interview, but all things considered, she “knew” she hadn’t stood a chance.

“So I never applied,” she told us. “Instead, I sent the advertisement to a peer and encouraged him to interview.” She paused. “He got the job.”

How was it that this bright, hardworking, lovely young woman also had such an aptitude for self-sabotage?

There are plenty of smart, even gifted, people like Erin. They are bonded by a common behavior psychologists call “self-handicapping,” which involves anticipating a real or imagined obstacle that might get in the way of success, and using that obstacle as an excuse.

Self-handicapping allows us to protect ourselves from the pain of assuming responsibility for our failures, and people do it all the time. In a groundbreaking 1978 study, psychologists Berglas and Jones found that participants who “succeeded” at a test (that was really just luck-based) were more likely to choose to take a performance-inhibiting drug before taking a second test. In other words, they actively set themselves up for failure on the second try. By doing this, they could blame their subsequent poor performance on the drug, and also protect their earlier feeling of success.

In a more recent set of experiments conducted by psychologist Sean McCrea at the University of Konstanz in Germany, participants were asked to take several intelligence tests under a variety of conditions. The research showed that people who were encouraged to make excuses for their poor performance — blaming poor performance on loud noises, for example — maintained high self-esteem, but were also less motivated to improve.

This kind of behavior is often so subtle and habitual that we don’t notice we’re doing it. Think about the manager who has to give a big presentation and fails to practice ahead of the event, or people who procrastinate on work projects and wind up “not having enough time” to do a good job. In a 2010 HBR article, Jeffrey Pfeffer identified self-handicapping as one of three major barriers to building professional power: people avoid the pain of failure by never trying to build power in the first place.

What can you do to overcome self-handicapping? Here are four steps:

  1. Watch for the warning signs. Drawing down your efforts, generating lists of excuses, or distracting yourself (music, alcohol, etc.) are signs that you’re engaging in self-handicapping. Everyone needs to take breaks and manage energy during the work day, but these activities can be clues that you are veering onto the trail of self-sabotage. A mentor or colleague can often help steer you back on course.
  2. Use “what-ifs” and “if-onlys” to help you generate goals instead of excuses. Research shows that the thinking people engage in during self-handicapping can just as easily be flipped to be motivational. When you ponder what could have gone better, or recognize obstacles in your way, you generate valuable information. Identify factors within your control, and see what you can do about them. Erin, for example, could have responded to the thought “I’m not great in interviews” by researching the right skills, practicing them, and requesting support from her mentor.
  3. Recognize and manage your negative emotions. Research shows that when we use our “if-onlys” to motivate rather than excuse ourselves, we will also likely experience negative emotions, such as disappointment and self-directed anger . If you can notice these emotions and be kind to yourself in working through them, you’re more likely to be able to move into positive, empowering behavior.
  4. Go for mastery. Self-handicapping is most likely to kick in when we are trying to perform well in order to avoid negative feedback from external sources, such as criticism from colleagues. When we focus instead on developing mastery in a domain we care about, we tap into our inherent motivation to learn and grow. Recognize what matters to you, and brainstorm ideas to get yourself moving in that direction.

Going for what you really want takes considerable courage. Let’s face it, even when you put forth your best effort, things don’t always turn out as you would like. But by taking a risk you open yourself not only to the possibility of failure, but also the possibility of learning, growth, and real attainment. It’s up to you to decide which is more perilous: the risk of disappointment, or the risk of never reaching your potential.

Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Reveiw.  This blog was originally published here.

Susan David is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Happiness (due out in January 2013) with Ilona Boniwell and Amanda Conley Ayers. Susan is is a founder and co-director of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and a member of the Harvard faculty. She is also the director of Evidence Based Psychology, a leadership development organization and management consultancy.

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Recent Comments

  1. Michelle Booth

    I’m preordering that book! I definitely indulge in distraction activities.

  2. Dr. Pam Peeke, MD

    What a terrific post — you’re not targeting a specific arena of behavior which is even more likely to set up a resolution for failure. Instead, you’re leaving the options open so that self-empowerment can be instituted in any area, which can definitely lead to using those new skills in yet another area of life.

    I’ve shared this with my readers and clients. Thanks for posting.

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